The typical third year of a General Assembly session is politically contentious and about setting the table for the coming election a year down the road.
But in 2017, the 90-day session was as much about the 2016 election of President Donald Trump and how it could be tied to Gov. Larry Hogan and his re-election campaign that starts almost immediately.
“I would phrase it slightly differently,” said Del. C. William “Bill” Frick, D-Montgomery and House majority leader. “The overall theme was largely about Maryland’s values and often that was in contrast to Trump values.”
But Frick, who himself has tried to tie Hogan to Trump and once called the governor “the Trump of State Circle,” acknowledged that describing the session as one about Trump or one about Maryland’s values is a difference with little distinction.
“I think that’s fair,” Frick said. “I think the election of Trump and the visceral reaction to it was the dominant theme of the political season, and so it comes as no surprise that it was the dominant theme of our session.”
Almost from the start, Democrats made it clear the agenda for the session would largely be driven by concerns about policies that could be enacted at the federal level.
“It was all Trump all the time,” said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “The General Assembly had been itching for a partisan fight with Hogan, and in the end they got it with Donald Trump as an added bonus. They desperately wanted voters to see Trump and Hogan as the same person. They know they can beat Trump in Maryland. You can be dead and beat Trump in Maryland, because he is the caricature of how bad a Republican can be.”
Out of the gate
In the first month of the session, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. announced a set of legislative priorities that included a bill and a resolution to give Attorney General Brian E. Frosh the ability to sue the federal government over immigration policies or the rollback of the Affordable Care Act. They also unveiled bills establishing panels to monitor possible changes to Obamacare and the Dodd-Frank Act and another resolution withdrawing the state’s calls for Constitutional Conventions.
Within two weeks of its introduction, the legislature passed the resolution authorizing Frosh to sue the federal government. It was a rush job Democratic lawmakers said was necessitated by the president’s immigration policies and a pending vote to eliminate the Affordable Care Act.
Later, the legislature would introduce bills focused at prohibiting internet service providers from selling user information for marketing purposes and the so-called Trust Act, which focused on preventing police from asking residents to prove citizenship but also would have prevented jurisdictions from holding persons already in custody who were found to be wanted on federal immigration detainers.
Mileah Kromer, a political science professor at Goucher College and the director of the Goucher Poll, said efforts to tie Trump to Hogan so far have not had a significant effect on the first-term Republican governor.
“In the future it could happen, if there is a downturn in the economy, but right now there is no overwhelming evidence to show that this is happening,” Kromer said.
Eberly agreed that it’s not clear how successful the Democratic strategy has been.
“They tried,” Eberly said. “They sent him a Planned Parenthood funding bill and Hogan let it pass into law without his signature and with the Trust Act, it was their own party in the Senate that killed it. The only outstanding issue now is paid sick leave.”
Differences on sick leave
The House and Senate passed a paid sick leave bill that requires businesses with 15 employees or more to provide a minimum of five days of sick leave. The bill, which passed by veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, differs significantly from Hogan’s own proposal that would have placed mandatory paid sick leave requirements on businesses with as least 50 employees and offered tax incentives to encourage smaller companies to offer leave.
Hogan, in March, declared the legislature’s paid sick leave bill “dead on arrival,” but he has since softened his language.
“I have to see what’s in the bill,” Hogan said on the last night of the session. “I’m not sure if it’s the same bill.”
The comments have given some business groups cause to be concerned that Hogan might sign the bill or allow it to pass into law without his signature.
“It polls well,” Kromer said. “When it comes down to it, a majority of Marylanders support it. This might not be the one to pick a fight on.”
Already, Hogan has shown that he is politically adept and willing to adopt positions that run contrary to what one might expect from a Republican governor. One such instance was Hogan’s announcement to sign a fracking ban should it be sent to him.
The announcement ended a five-year block on a ban bill. Hogan became the first Republican governor to support such a ban. The move was seen as politically savvy because it took off the table a bill that would have placed hydraulic fracturing on the 2018 ballot — a referendum question that would have likely motivated progressive voters to come out to vote and possible hurt Hogan’s re-election chances.
In the meantime, Kromer said, Hogan has continued to add some legislative successes from the 2017 session that he can call bipartisan efforts, including the passage of a tax credit bill to attract and expand manufacturing jobs.
Employment and economic development, which continue as themes from the 2014 and 2016 elections, are two issues Kromer said Democrats have let Hogan dominate.
In a recent press release about the end of the 2017 session, the Democratic Party mentioned the word “job” just four times while mentioning Hogan 19 times and Trump eight times.
“It will be interesting to see if the message will evolve,” Kromer said. “There is a small glimmer of a mention in that release of the green jobs bill that they overrode the veto on, which we haven’t seen anything about since January.”
Kromer said Democrats could take a page out of Comptroller Peter Franchot’s book and focus on jobs and economic development issues.
“The brewery bill is a small-business bill,” Kromer said, adding that a message on jobs and the economy is one that would play well in places like Baltimore County, a swing jurisdiction where Democrats not only lost to Hogan but lost seats in the legislature.
And the wild card, according to Kromer, is that while Democrats are hoping to tie Hogan to Trump, the governor could come out against the president before the general election and further define himself as someone who acts independently of the president.
“That’s the danger of putting all your eggs in the Donald Trump basket if you’re the Democrats,” Kromer said. “I think it’s important to have a diversified portfolio, political or otherwise.”